APRIL 27, 2020
UNTAMED SHORE — A NEW coming-of-age story and thriller by novelist Silvia Moreno-Garcia — opens, and stays, in Desengaño, a secluded coastal town in Baja California that once made fortunes for the local fishermen who harvested shark livers until “[s]ynthetic vitamins had killed that business.” It’s “really nothing at all,” a desolate, overly sunned glitch on the map, a place that offers poor fishing, scant tourist dollars, or marriage to make a living. Death and isolation are inseparable. “You could figure the time by observing what the fisherman were doing by the seashore, or paying attention to the noises of the town,” she writes, when we meet Viridiana, the novel’s headstrong, if not starry-eyed protagonist. With its once prosperous beaches and somnolent inhabitants, Desengaño is a state of mind that remains exactly where it is. As is later observed, “[I]n Baja California there is only the devil or the nothing.” Most people here choose the latter.
Moreno-Garcia jumps into the noir genre for the first time with Untamed Shore, following a steady release of novels and short story collections over the last few years. Her breakout novel, Signal to Noise, about a teenage girl who casts spells by listening to songs, and Gods of Jade and Shadow, one of her most recent, concerning a young woman and the Mayan god of death in 1920s Mexico, each apply a dose of the supernatural. While Untamed Shore is grounded in the very tangible reality of 1979, it does adopt subtle qualities of the unreal, which help guide Viridiana through her own version of the unknown — sex, duplicity, and greed. Storms, wind, dreams, and “that familiar prickle down her spine” all work toward foretelling the worst to come. Bezoars and omens, beliefs passed down by Viridiana’s grandmother, play a significant role as well, though mostly through baroque language. Here, brutality takes on an almost divine quality, asserting the dreamy effect a fishing expedition had on Viridiana as a young girl:
How the small shark seemed to revive, suddenly biting the sides of the boat, its teeth splintering the wood, and down came a heavy club, beating it. […] [S]lamming, slamming, slamming until it lay still. There was no blood, but Viridiana recalled how the shark’s gills moved, softly rippling, how it did not move, but the gills still flexed.
Eighteen years old with a gift for languages and a dream of something better, Viridiana longs to leave her hometown and its conservative values. Desperate to find her own way, she’s swayed to stick around by an interesting translating opportunity for a wealthy American. Following the story’s central murder, Viridiana is confronted with a tempting proposal that forces her to reckon with rooted Catholic guilt and her own morality, asking the story’s central question: what will we do for what we want? “Certain things we must bear,” Moreno-Garcia writes on Viridiana’s dilemma. “She’d bear a haunting if she had what she desired. City lights, city streets, a life altered.”
In Untamed Shore, fantasy exists in the out-of-reach, and for Viridiana the otherworld is Mexico City, a place she longs to go in the footsteps of her father, a creative nomad whom her mother divorced in favor of simple domesticity. “What you want and what you need are two different things,” Marta explains to her daughter on the topic of Viridiana marrying Manuel, a local boy, depicted as the drab rich kid, “a meal twice reheated, water that never boiled.” But Viridiana, the namesake of the Luis Buñuel film (a favorite of her father’s), is looking for an escape, and her passion for “the pull of Mexico City, the need to leave the peninsula behind” is an inherent charm of her character. “She was still at that age when every experience must be catalogued.”
Viridiana’s restlessness is understandable, considering she still lives at home, where “[i]t was a frenzied nest of activity” and there’s always “mind-bogglingly dull duty.” Marta is unequivocal in her opinion of Viridiana’s intellectual abilities, particularly her job as a translator during the tourist season. “Study languages. Translate. Charge almost nothing by the page. Mexico City, the university, they’re nonsense. You should get married,” she says during a mild mother-daughter spat. Though it’s clear that Viridiana’s marriage to Manuel would help the family financially, it’s never an issue they confront directly. When she’s offered a lucrative summer translating job from “the Dutchman,” an old chess partner of her father’s, there’s little hesitation on either side of the table. Despite the fact that Viridiana will be living with a small coterie of Americans, her mother’s only stipulation is that she comes home for Mass and Sunday supper. For Viridiana, this is less about money than it is about identity: “[S]he wanted to be bold, she wanted to be interesting, she wanted to be the kind of girl who doesn’t get left behind when the guy packs his bags and heads out of town.”
The job in question is for Ambrose, an older man working on his first book. “[I]t’ll have realness to it, real stories, juicy ones,” he explains to Viridiana in the luxurious, modern home he’s renting with his trophy wife, Daisy, and her brother, Gregory, in tow. “I know a lot of people. Big People. I have a lot of friends in Hollywood.” The whole scene — from the red Cadillac El Dorado in the driveway to the fact that no one in the group seems to work — is slightly scandalous to Viridiana, something she takes in stride, while it admittedly tugs at the romantic, hopeful version of herself. Over time the group and its charms get the otherwise prim local girl to let her guard down. Daisy, “tall and slim, her blonde hair all layered flicks,” is especially beguiling. “Within an hour [Viridiana] had decided that she liked the woman very much. She thought they might become best friends, that she could be like one of those lady’s maids in old movies. A traveling companion, merrily seeing the world together.” Although things don’t quite work out this way, it’s a sentiment Viridiana never abandons completely, even when things get rough.
It’s here that the seductive power of escape begins to get the better of Viridiana. Adding to the charge is “matinee idol” Gregory, a handsome layabout and valet of sorts, who quickly professes his attraction to Viridiana. With surprising speed, she acquiesces both physically and intellectually.
What she discovered in those days when the temperature soared and sweat clung to their bodies, the fan whirling slowly, was that there was an uncomfortable similarity between despair and desire; an agony of the flesh. She learned that she could loathe and want something, that his hands were repugnant and delicious. Most of all she learned to handle him with a brutal quiet efficiency.
The “handling” of Gregory may be an overstatement, since he just as easily confuses himself, but Viridiana does achieve a better grasp of how far she can push her own sense of right and wrong; and it’s here that she begins to balance her animosity toward Desengaño and her mother’s values with the uncertain future she’s considering in Mexico City and, if Gregory is to be believed, Paris. When Manuel finds her at a restaurant with another man, she thinks, “I deserve this, all of this.” It’s this guilt that’s the greatest antagonist to Viridiana, and the thing we hope that she can finally get rid of.
As pragmatic as Viridiana is, she’s not immune to the sensational appeal of movies, and it becomes apparent through the novel how much influence they have on our own understanding of what we want out of life. Despite her conviction against conformity, she’s still a romantic at heart, guided by stories to make sense of the world. As the novel’s cast of characters fall into their respective roles (the gold-digging wife, the cad seducer, indifferent cops, the distant relative, and the plucky young heroine) she begins to finally identify the best version of who she is through the gutsy ghosts of Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor. “This is a movie,” she thinks to herself as things get to a boiling point. “It’s not the movie I started watching but it’s the movie that it’s become.” It’s as if she’s left the omens and bezoars of her grandmother behind, and chosen a dream that’s more real, the one that’s on the screen, projecting more about us than ancient fears or nature’s uncertain predictions. “She thought she looked different,” Moreno-Garcia writes toward the end of the novel. “That her hair was black and her eyes were as dark as they’d always been, but it was if she had reassembled herself.” Who we are is more often than not a state of mind, a blink or two away from where we want to be.